Wednesday, January 16, 2008


This is the final chapter of draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Year 577 (Blue 64)

Yoj knocked on the familiar door, heavy zinc decorated top to bottom with a sloping helix pattern and painted bright red every midsummer. She was expected for dinner, but this was the apprentice Genist's residence too, so she never just walked in. It was Prl who opened the door, however, looking elegant and imposing with her hair piled on the back of her head, a stark white silk shati brocaded with gold loose over her very shapely figure. She grabbed Yoj in an enthusiastic hug. She still smelled like the toddler who had sat in Yoj's lap at meals, whispering funny questions to her.

"Did you dress up for me?" asked Yoj. "I'm a bit dusty from the Archives."

"No, I had an appointment that just ended" said Prl. "I like to make granting Leave an occasion for anxious partners, a moment when it all changes for them, as it were. Come on, I have a vegetable stew simmering from earlier -- well, Yerush's recipe, actually. There's a few ears of fresh corn to go with it, and some wonderfully aged sheep cheese -- I want you to take the rest of it back to the abbas when you go."

They loaded trays and carried them into Prl's office, where they always ate on these once-a-week special dinners, leaving the kitchen for the apprentice. Prl set a small table before Yoj at her chair, and cleared her own desk enough to eat there.

Yoj looked at the stack of lineage books on Prl's desk and said "Do you think, if you had a big enough sheet of paper, you could construct a chart that showed everyone on Skene and their relationship to each other?"

Prl grinned at her, a fleck of spinach on one tooth. "It already exists. We just glue on new sections, down and to both sides, as we need room. I'll show it to you sometime."

"How do you handle the cross-relationships, the partnerings back and forth over time?" asked Yoj.

Prl paused. "We don't. It's not about family construction. Our focus is strictly genes handed on. And half the names on it are actually numbers of Contributions -- although by this time, certain numbers sound like names to me, have the familiar feel of someone I might know."

Yoj had bitten into her corn and was lost for a moment to the rich, sweet flavor. After nibbling down a row, she said "You've been at this two years on your own, four since leaving the U. Still as much fun for you?"

"More all the time, emma. You must know how that is -- you were the youngest-ever Dichter of all Skene. I'm sure Raisa never intended me to share a similar title, but it's glorious being on my own" said Prl. She flashed Yoj a smile that was pure Yerush in its ease with power. Yerush, and now Bux, since she had won re-election as Ethicist. "Listen, how are the abbas, really? I noticed last Shmona that Veida is using a chair at the aga for long periods of stirring."

"She'll be 91 at her next birthday" Yoj reminded her. "But she still has most of her teeth, and I don't think she's in real pain. Just aches here and there."

"I hear her tinctures sell out as fast as they arrive at the store" said Prl.

"Yeah. Because of Veida's hand tremor, Halling is the one filling those little bottles now, with Veida breathing down her neck and finding endless fault. Just like Qen questions me two or three times about how I've labeled her seed packets, since even with her new glasses she can't really read print any more. And they both worry endlessly about how Speranz and Tlunu are caring for the cold frames. But Bux had to put her foot down and keep our frail elders off the ladders."

Prl was giggling. "Every time I see abba Qen, she tells me how proud she is that Speranz has become a leraar."

"You know, now that the Manage looks safe to be her inheritance, I'm impressed with how hard Speranz works to keep it in good shape. Qen and Veida still rule over the tillage, but Speranz, and Tlunu too, are learning everything they can from them" said Yoj.

"And what does aggie have to say about that?" wondered Prl slyly.

Yoj looked at her with a smile. "Speranz reminds me often of Bux at that age, newly in love and coming into her power. And their maneuverings remind me of those Bux had with Yerush. Qen and Veida ignore it all. Veida is determined to never leave Qen; they've got each other to themselves, now."

"I wish Veida'd aggied" said Prl. "Those are genes we could use more of."

"Well, Pank and Tu's child, Nk -- Pank will be passing on some of Veida's genes, right?" queried Yoj.

"A few, although the expression of them may not be the same. Pank's aggie, Veida's sib, was only a half-sib, which means Pank had only one-fourth the genes shared by Veida. Which means Nk has one-eighth." Prl waited for the math to make sense to Yoj. Yoj's mind had gone in another direction, however.

"I hope I've expressed to you how grateful I am, we all are, for you spending every other Shmonah with Qen and Veida" said Yoj. "They just can't climb Sigrist Poke any more, and it would be unbearable to leave them behind to go see Ndege and Gerra if you weren't there to eat with them and make it a family day for them."

"It's my complete pleasure" said Prl, meaning it. "Plus, I'm sure you're aware I pick their brains about the families of Skene. Neither of them are malicious gossips, but they seem to know everything about who's done what for the last several decades, especially with regard to the home lives of children. Qen's an irreplaceable resource."

"I couldn't count the number of children she's rescued, one way or another" agreed Yoj. "And yes, I'm aware of your delving, as they are they. But it's all for the good of Skene, right?" She and Prl grinned at each other.

"I know Ndege can't be pried loose from Sigrist Poke, and it truly bothers Veida. Is Dodd bringing Ndege and Gerra's children down for visits often enough, though?" asked Prl.

"The dinners you come share with us weekly plus at least one other day, Dodd meets them at school and brings them to us for homework, play and dinner." said Yoj. "And the last two times, she's brought Briel along with them."

Prl smiled to herself. "Ah, the enticing Briel. I hope she has the sense to return Dodd's feelings for her."

Yoj leaned forward in interest. "Dodd's feelings -- you know for sure Dodd loves her? She's not confided in me, not yet."

"Yes, emma, I'm sure. Dodd is quiet but it's all over her face" said Prl. In their own way, Prl and Dodd had remained emotionally closer than any of the children, even though Dodd was living with Ndege while she went to the U. "In fact -- " Prl paused, choosing her words -- "I predict Dodd will go on living with the Sigrists and become the third shift for them on a permanent basis when Asha finally retires. If Briel loves her, I mean. Briel has one more year before she's a certified curandera, right? Well, they have lots of room up there, and Gerra is her favorite cousin, so I think she and Dodd will stay there, helping raise the children. Dodd can write poems and essays in her head as she looks out on Skene, dreaming up verse or commenting on what she sees. Briel can walk to work easily each day. And Ndege, as obsessed as she is with Gerra, will still always be glad to look after Dodd."

Yoj had a mix of emotions on her face. "I -- could see that working well for Dodd. Briel needs the kind of devotion Dodd would give her. Her mother was Mrand, you know -- do you remember, her dying in childbirth before Veida could get there, out on one of the Western Flings?"

Prl furrowed her brow. "I'm not sure. Maybe."

"Anyhow, I'd rather have Dodd living with us, but she wouldn't have room to bring in a partner and start her own family with us -- not if Speranz and Tlunu go ahead with their plans" said Yoj.

There was an unspoken question in the air, and Prl decided to answer it. "No, they've not applied for Leave yet. Speranz and Tlunu. But you know how Speranz is, she'll wait until the last minute, sure she'll get whatever she really wants." It was said with affection.

There was another silent question, Prl guessed, about Dodd's fertility should she partner with an X. Prl didn't want to answer that one, although she would love seeing Yoj's expression to find out that Dodd was exuberantly fertile, and it was possible that she and Briel could have all the children they wanted, without Leave or Contribution.

Instead, Prl said drily "Emma -- Halling, I mean -- must be over the moons, to have one of her children partnering with the child of Xaya's sib."

"Oh, her passion for Tlunu runs deep in many directions" said Yoj. "She's a gifted pilot, and she's fiery enough to handle even Speranz. But yes, her resemblance to Xaya makes Halling's face melt every time she looks at her."

Prl went into the kitchen and returned with a fresh pot of tea and some apricot bars. After serving Yoj, she said "Listen, emma...My apprentice is only four years younger than me, and it's a toss-up as to which one of us will live longer. Anyhow, she's a good sort, at least so far, but I don't feel like -- confiding in her, about serious questions that have to do with Genist decisions. Not about all of it. So, I'm wondering if -- both as my favorite emma and as the Archivist, could I possibly tell you things that you can swear to not pass on anywhere, not even to my other emmas?"

Yoj was startled. She took a bite of apricot bar and looked at Prl's blue, blue eyes thoughtfully. She loved it when Prl baldly stated Yoj was her favorite emma, but she also felt guilty about it. Swallowing, she said "You won't be passing on personal details about other Skene citizens, will you? I mean, those applying for Leave? -- "

"No, no" assured Prl. "The issues I need to talk over with some are more theoretical. But highly confidential all the same."

"I don't, as a rule, keep secrets from your emmas. Hasn't worked out well for us" said Yoj with a wry grin. "Still, I could tell them your request and my honoring your confidence, and I think they'll understand. We're all influential women now, we don't necessarily share every detail of our responsibilities with one another."

Prl waited. Yoj asked "Will this conflict in any manner with my duties as Archivist?"

"Not that I can see" said Prl. "In fact, it may enhance your understanding. And -- I think it's very possible that buried somewhere in the Archives are personal records which would reveal the secrets I hold."

"At which point, being able to discuss them with you would be a boon" said Yoj, grinning at Prl's subtlety. If she hadn't spent years living with Yerush, she might be taken in by Prl.

Prl grinned back. She counted on Yoj being smarter than her. She paused, then went off on another seeming tangent.

"It's the 20th of next month, right, that Mill, Oby and the other eight are going to fly to Pya?" asked Prl.

Pya was the name being used for the new land masses shown on the map Raisa had given them, before Yerush died. No one had been close enough yet to know if the land actually existed.

"If the weather's good, yes" said Yoj, wondering at this question. "The new power source for the big sinners would allow them to go directly there in around 20 hours, but they're planning to land on the next-nearest secano, to rest a day. In case there's -- trouble. They'll do a survey, maybe set down, but return to the secano and radio back to the Lofthall when the new satellite orbits within range. Halling will make the decision then."

"On her own?" asked Prl.

"No, Bux as Ethicist will be there, plus all the Sheng Zhangs. Plus Qala" said Yoj. "Why -- are you worried about Mill?"

"No more than usual" smiled Prl. "It's just that -- how are decisions going to be made beyond that? If it's a place where we could live, who will determine land use, and what industries are allowed to emigrate, and -- most importantly -- social structure?"

"We haven't reached that point yet" said Yoj, now understanding Prl's drift. "Halling keeps insisting we do things one step at a time. But Bux won't allow anything to occur there, beyond initial exploration, without it being brought to all of Skene for a vote."

"Yet -- even which questions are presented, the very wording of it, will have an influence on people" said Prl.

"And you want to be part of that?" asked Yoj.

"I have to be, emma" said Prl.

"Because if, in fact, migration occurs, you'll have to oversee the transfer of Contributions to halfway around the globe? Maybe allow the establishment of a second Genist?" said Yoj.

"More than that" said Prl. She stopped herself again, and again took an oblique path. "Emma, how would you feel if you knew your children were not just yours as they are now, but also -- descended from you? Containing your genes as much as those of Bux?"

Yoj was completely thrown off guard. "You mean, like -- if I was a Y?"

"That's one example, yes."

"I -- I don't know, Prl. I can't imagine feeling like you kids were any more mine. My connection to you, my sense of responsibility to you -- I honestly think it's as strong as what Bux feels. But how can I know?" said Yoj, a small uneasiness starting inside her.

"Well, then -- what if you, for instance, knew that Bux and Halling had a genetic connection to us but not you? Would that have affected your relationships with us, or with them as the other emmas?" persisted Prl.

Yoj stared into Prl's blue eyes, brighter than Bux's now. She suddenly said, "Lev, I forgot to feed the chickens!"

The Genist and the Archivist shared a small tillage and chicken run which had been mostly unused until their recent tenure. They alternated days tending to it. Yoj stood and said "I'll be just a minute."

"I'll go with you" said Prl, walking with her outside. They fed and watered the chickens, chatting lightly about other things, and looked at the tomato plants briefly. A wide, comfortable stone bench sat at one edge of the tillage, covered by a metal portico. Yoj often sat out here to read. She sat down now, and Prl scooted up next to her.

"I'm able to think again" said Yoj. "It's not just a hypothetical question, is it, Prl?"

Prl slid her arm through Yoj's. "No, emma" she said softly.

"How?" asked Yoj.

"Halling, and Lawa, too, were partially created by Ng. Mwezi used a Contribution, yes, but those two pregnancies came about from Ng, who was very fertile" said Prl.

"No wonder Halling looked so much like her emma" breathed Yoj.

"And -- the Contribution collected from Ng when she was 16 -- Raisa used that for all five of us children. Which means, biologically, we're emma's half-sibs" said Prl.

Yoj felt pain in her chest. "I can't believe -- is that done? Is that how the Genist does things?"

"Never" said Prl. "It was Raisa's grand experiment. I don't think Dest would have allowed it, not from what I can read into the philosophy behind her decisions. We're the only five full-sibs on Skene."

For a moment, Yoj wondered if Yerush had known about this, if Yerush had helped plot it with Raisa. But she didn't want to believe Yerush, even power-diseased Yerush, would have taken that kind of risk with her family.

"I guess the experiment panned out" said Yoj slowly, her breathing heavy.

"I'd say so, but I'm not objective" said Prl with a small laugh.

"So Halling's connection to Mill -- it's more than just -- " started Yoj.

"But what about your connection to me, and to Dodd?" interrupted Prl. "It's every bit as strong. That's my question -- would you have felt that, chosen us, if you knew we were connected to Halling in a way we were not to you?"

Yoj still didn't know how to answer that question. She had another thought. "What about me? Do I have any -- partial sibs -- out there among the population?"

"If you did, I couldn't tell you" said Prl. "But, the math, emma -- the genetic sharing changes exponentially with each generation. I mean, we're all cousins here on Skene, many times over. And, almost always, the Genist strives to spread things around, not create pools of connection; it's critical to vigor. Plus -- it was an outgrowth of the Troubles, and the decision to redefine family when fertility stayed different here."

"I know about that" said Yoj. "At least the politics and culture aspects. I really hadn't thought about the -- biology." After a pause, she said "So Ng was your -- I don't have a word for it. She wasn't your emma, she was your abba. But she was -- "

"Contribution works fine" said Prl. "And we loved Qen and Veida as much as Ng, who have no biological link to us. It seems clear to me the way we're doing things is working, extremely well. But -- some new decisions are in the wind, and I want to know how you think it will alter emmas' attachment to their children."

"Is my -- strain, thread, whatever you call it -- completely gone from Skene?" said Yoj. "I mean, Halling's, or Ng's I guess, is thriving. I bet at least four of you will have children, and I bet Ndege isn't the only aggie among you -- well, and Dodd can't aggie, but -- " Yoj looked at Prl questioningly. Prl started to shake her head, and Yoj's expression became urgent. "Please, Prl, please don't deny me this one -- Dodd, is Dodd like Ng? Can she -- " Again, Yoj didn't have the word for it.

Prl sighed. "Yes. She is very capable of assisting an aggie. In fact, I'm going to have to pull her aside and talk to her any day now, since it looks like she and Briel are headed in that direction."

"An unplanned baby? Boggles the mind" said Yoj.

"And yes, we're all five of us fertile and I agree with you, we all seem to want children" said Prl.

Yoj's face showed compassion. "Ah, sweetie -- how unfair, that you the provider of babies for everyone else are prohibited from having your own" she said gently.

"I'm prohibited from using a Contribution" corrected Prl before stopping herself. She didn't want to open that door, not yet. One of the many katts of their combined tillage jumped onto her lap, and she began stroking it. To throw Yoj off the trail, she gave her a different morsel. "And Ng's Contribution didn't stop with us. Danaan is also hers."

"Really?!!" exclaimed Yoj. "So she and Halling are half-sibs, too. Well, that explains a great deal."

Another katt appeared in the dusk and claimed Yoj's lap. There had only been two katts in residence when Yoj became Archivist -- the magnetic content of the rock which comprised the Shatters, and into which the Archives was carved, naturally repelled shu, and katts were not essential here. But once a year, Yoj went to Pomar, selected another kitten, and brought it to the Archive. Katts had a private passageway from the outside into the warren of the Archives, and by the time the number reached 15 or so, the older katts would be dying off. Yoj reasoned she could indulge herself in her quest for a mass of katts.

They were both silent for a while. Prl knew Yoj's mind was digging relentlessly, making connections. She wondered where Yoj would pop up next.

"I gather, then, you're asking about emmas because -- on Pya it might be possible for aggies to not need Contributions?" speculated Yoj. "Except, that would force them to choose Ys as emmas, wouldn't it?" Yoj clearly found that objectionable.

Prl answered indirectly. "Dodd and Ndege are not identical twins because -- they don't come from the same egg. Increasingly, women on Skene are ovulating twice within a few days, dropping two or more eggs. We've known about it for a century, and it seems to be increasing. X's are becoming more fertile as Y's decline. Raisa experimented there as well -- she gave you a double Contribution for that birth, separated by four days, did she not?"

Yoj stared at her. "She said it was because the first batch was not strong, and she was worried about its efficacy" she whispered.

"Well, she lied again. It was to take advantage of Bux's wild fecundity and give her -- you -- twins. Two babies in the same womb. That's why Dodd was smaller, she began developing several days after Ndege" said Prl. "And I have to say, it's simply not recommended. Things could have gone very, very wrong."

"What are you driving at, then?" asked Yoj, saving her anger about the threat to her children for another time.

"We have the means -- have had for a long time -- of using an egg from one woman in the womb of another, to create a baby that is part of both" said Prl. She felt a chill slide over her skin that wasn't from the approaching night. She had just violated her most sacred oath as a Genist.

"Shards" exhaled Yoj. "You mean -- I could have been -- "

Not you thought Prl. You're an XXY, like Qen. Some secrets she would never divulge, however.

"We've not made this public -- not even the Ethicists or Archivists have known -- because, well, it would create a crisis in family construction, wouldn't it? It could launch another period like the Troubles" said Prl.

"I can easily imagine that" said Yoj. "If just any two people could create children, with no Leave and no insistence on stability -- Rosz and Nilma might have had who knows how many."

"Or a single woman could use two of her own eggs and not have another emma at all" said Prl.

Yoj looked at her sharply. "Ah" she said.

Prl shrugged deflectively. "Conversation for another time, emma. I'd need abbas living with me, for one thing."

But Yoj was not going give up that line of thought so quickly. "We -- that tillage is in the blood of Qen and Veida, they'll never leave. And if people go on after death, then Yerush and Ng are still there, too. Bux won't give it up. We can't come here, even moving into the Archivist quarters" she said regretfully.

"I've thought about asking Lawa and Qala, when they retire" said Prl hesitantly. Yoj felt her blood go cold: Giving up primary access to Prl's children to others? Still, if it enabled Prl to aggie -- she'd find a way to be glad for them all.

"Anyhow, emma, the point is: If there's a new place on Skene, with its own government and population, too far away for us to tell them how to do things, they could redefine family without the same level of tumult it would cause here. Maybe" said Prl.

"But everyone here would know about it, and some would clamor for the same access" argued Yoj.

"Hence my question. How would it change our relationships? For better or worse?" said Prl.

Yoj said "I remember something Z'bef once told me: That what she learned from being on Peisuo was the value of not allowing yourself to get cornered. Of choosing to avoid the desperation of battle, which means a kind of thinking ahead, a maturity, that was not passed on to her by her emmas. Training to be a person, not an animal. She said it was ironic she finally acquired that training when she was separated from other people for all time."

After a pause, Prl said "How is she working out as a gakusha?"

"More students sign up for her classes than can be allowed in" smiled Yoj.

"I've found it intriguing that you, of all people, became close friends with an emmacide" said Prl.

"Yeah, it has bothered Halling, too" said Yoj.

"But not aggie?" asked Prl.


Silence pooled around them again for a while. Yoj said "If I may ask you to divulge a confidence about those no longer among us...did Yerush's emmas apply for Leave to have another child, beyond her? Do you know?"

Prl sucked her teeth briefly. "I do know. And yes, they did, but were denied."

Yoj sighed. "Well, my darling child, I don't have an answer inside me at this moment to the big questions you are asking. We'll have to talk this out further. I wish I could take it to Bux and Halling -- "

"Not yet" said Prl. "Eventually, I know. Even though this is a secret no Genist has divulged for generations now."

"Well, circumstances have changed, or are about to. You're right to know that" said Yoj. "I'll think for a week, and we can return to it next Empat." She stood and held out a hand to pull Prl to her feet. "I need to go home."

"Come get that cheese for the abbas" reminded Prl. "And I'll see you at Market, if not before."

"You're quite the groundbreaker" remarked Yoj as she followed Prl inside. "A Genist who does her own marketing, who attends plays and dances, who talks to ordinary people. Folks can't quite get over your combination of high service and everyday life."

"I was raised that way" said Prl, with a wide blue-eyed grin.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Wow, Maggie. My heart is sore at the thought that my visit to Skene is over. My days have been framed by the women of Skene since you started posting chapters.

You are an incredible writer! I am fascinated by the amount of detail you created for this other world and its characters.

Thank you for gifting your readers with this delightful reading experience.

Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks for noting the "end of an era", Jan. I miss them, too. But, as you can see, the door is open to further adventures: Mill and Oby go to Pya! Prl revolutionizes reproduction! Dodd has a family! And what about the leviathans, how are they going to react to humans spreading out elsewhere on Skene? Who will become the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall when Halling retires? What else will Yoj find in the Archives? And that Bux -- what changes will she oversee at Ethicist?

Personal question: Did you wind up liking Yerush, warts and all? I sure did.

letsdance said...

Yerush was a character I respected more than liked. She was a bit difficult, as are many of us.

Okay, okay...yes, I liked her conditionally.

Cowboy Diva said...

wait, What?
Yoj (and Qen) had Klinefelter's? Would the phenotype not have been Y, then? Or does the serious lack of testosterone on Skene have that much of an effect?
Oh and too, solitary parthenogenesis on the part of Prl seems like an interesting story in itself; I would have thought its rationale would be some serious megalomania on the part of the parent but now I am not so sure.
In any case, thanks for the sailing trip.
PS. Yerush, still annoying. *grins*

Maggie Jochild said...

Hey, Cowboy Diva, what a thrill to have someone else read through all of Skene and comment on it.

I think of Yoj and Qen as having something similar to what I've got, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), in which an excess of estrogen creates infertility. But it is, yes, hazy because the human biology is being impacted by an alien environment -- all that ocean, and double moons, and who knows what else. It may not be lack of testosterone, it's not that cut and dried what determines gender expression and reproductive capability. And, from my friends in the field of biology, it seems like even here on Earth, mammals may be undergoing a measurable shift in how they reproduce. Some say the Y chromosome is on its way out. The "two gender" model is not necessary for reproduction and is only functional in certain environmental situations, which may have run their course here.

Skene has limited birth to households with a lot of adult resource, because they are always skating on the edge of extinction and every adult's energy is badly needed to keep ecological balance intact. In that regard, the idea of a single parent is a little blasphemous. My model was pre-white-contact Hopi culture, where children "belonged" to an extended family network in a climate where farm existence was difficult. Some aspects of their social organization look much "freer" to us, other aspects incomprehensibly narrow. But all culture evolves from geographical limits, originally.

I guess Yerush is just my soft spot. That's okay. I just hope it's not because she's like me and I can't see it. (yikes)

Blue said...


What a wonderfully rich imagination and sharp intellect you possess. It has been an absolute pleasure to read this - except for the part where I got totally addicted and neglected my chores, because then I think M got annoyed.

I'm going to read it again!